The use of online journaling as a qualitative methods datasource

Ongoing ideas re: this topic.  Previously posted (in part) - now with edits and with references updated.
      During the Modern period most people achieved a basic level of education, opening up modes of writing including contexts of first person perspectives and autobiographies.  Weintraub (1995) states “the autobiographic genre took on its full dimension and richness when Western Man acquired a thoroughly historical understanding of his existence.”  Once this level of understanding was achieved it was possible for humans to consider their existence within individual contexts.
     Breines (1989) identifies that “human action can be understood only in terms of the relationships that it generates with the world.”  From a pragmatic perspective, Breines states that a person’s ability to ‘connect’ with the world is dependent upon active and meaningful engagement with the environment.  Not only is this a functional outcome for the individual, but it is also a functional outcome for all of society.  Writing provides a means toward both of these ends as it provides a medium for interactivity between the inner world of ideas and the outer world of reality.  Sartre (1949) stated that all good writing is social writing and is illuminated and constructed through the writer-reader ‘relationship.’   By this definition, I can’t write as a lone individual – there must be some ‘Other’ that answers or responds to my assertions.  In this sense, writing becomes an act of witness, and a medium for self-affirmation.  Modern theorists refer to this as a dialogic learning process (Nour, 2014).
     Even the seemingly disconnected medium of diary writing is a connected social discourse.  This is particularly evident in the opening salutation that is so common in journal writing: ‘Dear Diary…’  Anne Frank addressed her diary as “Kitty” which was a personalization of her discourse where she stated:

It’s an odd idea for someone like me to keep a diary; not only because I have never done so before, but because it seems to me that neither I—nor for that matter anyone else—will be interested in the unbosomings of a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl. Still, what does that matter? I want to write, but more than that, I want to bring out all kinds of things that lie buried deep in my heart” (Frank, 1952).

Although Ann did not believe that anyone would be interested in her story, her diary has been translated into nearly every modern language.  
     An appropriate following question would be ‘Why would people be interested in the private writings of another person?’ Bunkers and Huff (1996) explain that "diaries are not so much inclusive because they contain everything from a given day, as they are inclusive in the sense that they do not privilege 'amazing' over 'ordinary' events."   This celebration of the ‘ordinary’ is a longstanding theme in understanding meaningful occupation.  Diary writing and diary reading provides a vehicle of social connectedness through the ordinary.  This is a human need and is the basis of interactivity between the writer and the reader.
     The use of the diary as an interactive tool provides an example of what Rowles (1991) describes as a ‘surveillance zone,’ or an extension of personal space that has multiple uses.  These zones surround individuals and act as an area of potential socialization and contact with others.  Through the use of a diary, a surveillance zone may serve as an extension of a person’s self-definition and identity.   Reflective journaling has been used by educators as a learning tool.  Thomas (2015) used journals to collect qualitative data on the experiences of nursing students.  The widely cited Kolb Model (1974) has reflexivity embedded in the learning cycle; journaling in all of its forms meets the criteria for reflective methodology.  As an additional example, Garrouste-Orgeas, et al (2014) demonstrated the power of journaling in an ICU context and how a collective diary helped to facilitate communication and develop an ongoing narrative about experiences shared between families and staff.
     Online diaries provide a postmodern methodology for studying social spaces and interactions.  The term ‘postmodern’ is appropriate in this instance because it describes a virtual context where local environments and local relationships are no longer the basis of interactivity.  Rather, people congregate online at virtual places (websites) where information is shared and where writing occurs.  The nature of online interactivity includes, or even forces, dependence on the written form for communication.  Some researchers are beginning to explore virtual methods as a good source for narrative data for research studies.  Henker, Whalen, & Jamner (2002) identified anxiety patterns in a population of teenage girls through analysis of online journals and later adapted this virtual  technique to monitor the caregiving stress of parents who have children diagnosed with ADHD (Whalen, Odgers, Reed, & Henker (2011).  
     The proliferation of online writing anecdotally attests to the enjoyment of interactive journaling in a virtual context.  In addition to online diaries there are other ways that writing can act as an extension of Rowles’ ‘surveillance zones.’  For example, Stern (2002, 2004) discussed the opportunity of the Internet home pages as a forum for young women to create a narrative of their experiences.  This narrative becomes a performance of their lived culture and provides a means of self-expression.  Chandler (1998) applies the Levi-Strauss concepts of bricolage in describing the process that people use in construction of their online identities through authorship of their web pages.  The new virtual context, essentially described by its reliance on the interactivity of writing on the Internet, is a powerful and important forum for individual self-expression.  Dillon (2010) expanded on this method by using online journaling in place of interviews for understanding the self-identity construct in adolescents.    It is interesting to note that online journaling was initially studied in context of teenage girls and college student learning; researchers are still developing best methods for advantaging these large datasets for other populations.   
        The Internet will continue to have a significant impact on the occupation of writing in the future.  Hypertext allows people to write in a non-sequential post-structuralist format, such as was advocated for by Derrida; hypertext also meets the demands of multivocality, intertextuality and de-centeredness (Landow, 1992).  Individual self-determinism in narrative construction is important to consider in context of the ethical reading and interacting of such online datasets (Buitelaar, 2014).   
      The occupation of writing has been critical in social and individual development of human beings.    Writing offers a rich source of narrative information for understanding our historicity and for conducting inquiries into other occupations.  The accessible format of online journaling and the associated proliferation of journaling websites are both instant sources of data for qualitative studies. 

Breines, E.B. (1989). Making a difference: A premise of occupation and health, American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 43, 51-52.
Buitelaar, J. C. (2014). Privacy and Narrativity in the Internet Era. Information Society, 30(4), 266-281.
Bunkers, S.L. & Huff, C.A., (Eds.). (1996). Inscribing the Daily: Critical Essays on Women’s Diaries. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
Chandler, Daniel (1998). Personal Home Pages and the Construction of Identities on the Web.  Retrieved on 1/17/17 from
Dillon, L. (2010). Listening for Voices of Self. Qualitative Research Journal, 10(1), 13-27.
Frank, Anne (1952). The diary of a young girl. New York: Bantam Books.
Garrouste-Orgeas, M., Périer, A., Mouricou, P., Grégoire, C., Bruel, C., Brochon, S., & ... Misset, B. (2014). Writing in and reading ICU diaries: qualitative study of families' experience in the ICU. Plos One, 9(10), e110146. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0110146
Henker, B., Whalen, C.K., & Jamner, L.D. (2002). Anxiety, Affect, and Activity in Teenagers: Monitoring Daily Life With Electronic Diaries.  Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 41, 660-670.
Kolb, D. A., & Fry, R. E. (1974). Toward an applied theory of experiential learning. MIT Alfred P. Sloan School of Management.
Landow, G.P. (1992).  Hypertext-The converence of contemporary critical theory and technology.  Maryland: John Hopkins University Press.
Nouri, A. (2014). Dialogic learning: A social cognitive neuroscience view. International Journal of Cognitive Research in Science, Engineering, and Education, 2(2), 87-92.  Retrieved 1/17/17 at
Rowles, G.D. (1991). Beyond performance:  Being in place as a component of occupational therapy,  American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 45, 265-271.
Sartre, J. P. (1949). Literature and existentialism. New York: The Citadel Press.
Stern, S.R. (2002). Virtually speaking: Girls' self-disclosure on the WWW.  Women's Studies in Communication, 25, 223-253.
Stern, S. R. (2004). Expressions of Identity Online: Prominent Features and Gender Differences in Adolescents' World Wide Web Home Pages. Journal Of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 48(2), 218-243.
Thomas, J. A. (2015). Using unstructured diaries for primary data collection. Nurse Researcher, 22(5), 25-29. doi:10.7748/nr.22.5.25.e1322
Weintraub, K. (1995). Autobiography and historical consciousness.  In R. Smith (Ed.). Derrida and autobiography. Literature, culture, theory #16. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Whalen, C. K., Odgers, C. L., Reed, P. L., & Henker, B. (2011). Dissecting daily distress in mothers of children with ADHD: an electronic diary study. Journal Of Family Psychology: JFP: Journal Of The Division Of Family Psychology Of The American Psychological Association (Division 43), 25(3), 402-411. doi:10.1037/a0023473


Unknown said…
Thanks for sharing Chris. The topic relates nicely to the work we are doing in Buffalo with transition age youth - utilizing website development as an intervention. Essentially engaging youth in journaling and other online visual expressive activities - using images, video and hyperlink/hypertext within personal websites. Your article will help serve as a good reference for us. Here's a link that shows some of the work from several years ago: We (Sharon Cavanaugh, OTR at some UB students) also published a brief article about our work at Baker Victory Services in Lackawanna NY (SIS Practice Quarterly November 2016, Volume 1, Issue 4)

New York State Office of Mental Health recently invited us to present our "WebKids" project to their staff in Albany next month, and we are hoping to pilot the project with adults within PROS programs as well (I'd love to get some OT students involved in that in Rochester area, hint hint). I think this could be a great way for OT practitioners to address mental health as well as transition planning.

Dave Merlo

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